The play “Birthday Candles” at the Detroit Public Theatre through June 3 tracks a woman named Ernestine by dropping in on her birthdays, starting at 17, and winding up when she’s over 100. Each short scene opens with Ernestine assembling the ingredients for her birthday cake.
DPT commissioned Los Angeles playwright Noah Haidle to write “Birthday Candles.” The Detroit News caught up with the Grand Rapids native, 39, to talk pastry, stealing from the best, and why his mom sometimes apologizes for his work:
News: You’re an actor, screenwriter, and also write plays. What do you tell people when asked what you do?
Haidle: It depends on who I’m talking to. If I’m in a cab, I usually say I’m an oceanographer or economist. Economist is great because nobody knows what that is. When you say “playwright,” you get a lot of, “Huh.” And I usually don’t want to go into it, so “playwright” is a little rough.
And if you say “screenwriter,” every Lyft driver in the world will want to tell you about their idea for a TV show.
Where did you get the device for “Birthday Candles” — dropping in on the main character’s birthdays?
I stole it from Thornton Wilder’s “Long Christmas Dinner,” which is basically my play, but probably better and shorter. As T.S. Elliot said, minor poets borrow. Major poets steal.
What sort of plays do you write?
I’d say “Laugh, laugh. Cry, cry.” I think that defines itself.
How’d you settle on Ernestine as your protagonist’s name?
I called some switchboard or God knows what — maybe Delta Airlines — and the woman’s name was Ernestine. And I happened to be writing a play at the moment.
DPT commissioned “Birthday Candles,” and you’ve won commissions from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Lincoln Center in New York. How’s it feel to be a sought-after playwright?
My life — my real autobiography — is pretty vanilla boring. Most of the time I just sit around eating Doritos.
What’s your creative process like?
I’m a little more meat-and-potatoes in playwriting than some. When I set out to do something, I don’t think about themes or saying anything. There’s no grand design. I can usually smell when an author’s trying to tell me something, and I get rankled.
“Birthday Candles” involves baking birthday cakes. Do you do cakes?
I did for this — once. It was a pile of junk. It was terrible. My wife politely ate a piece.
What does your mother think of your work?
Sometimes I plant her in readings, so I can ask, “Hey mom — what do you think?” She can be pretty brutal. And sometimes she’d apologize to the rest of the audience: “I don’t know where Noah learned that language.”
But at the end of “Birthday Candles,” she turned to the guy next to her and said, “My son wrote this.” That’s the review you wait for.
Through June 3
Detroit Public Theatre
Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit
Tickets: $35-$45 general
admission; $25 seniors over 60; $20 under 30